MacArthur Winner McHugh Serves Up the Weekly Poem

BY Arts Desk  September 22, 2009 at 10:00 AM EDT

Among today’s recipients of the so-called “Genius Award” (i.e. the MacArthur Fellowship) is poet Heather McHugh. The NewsHour will be airing a full profile of McHugh soon. (Here is that full profile.) For now, here’s McHugh reading her poem, “The Gift,” which is from her forthcoming book, “Upgraded to Serious,” to be published by Copper Canyon Press next month.

The Gift

From underwater you can’t see
a thing above: a sun, or a cloud,
or a man in a boat. You see
the bottom of the boat.

And everywhere below it—
flocks of glitter, brilliantly
communicating schools.
You see the calm
translucencies in groves, a sway
of peaceful flags. Above is silver
impassivity — reflective lid.
So why look out?
No out exists.

The sky, each time it’s wounded,
heals at once. A zippering across it
instantly dissolves. A wet suit’s foot
or a long black line behind a plummet,
or the sudden angling boomerang
(murre in a hurry to
zigzag down) all come
as pure surprises, passing thoughts

that leave no afterimage.

But we have lived above it all instead,
our feet on the ground, our heads
in the clouds, where there’s
no ceiling sealing us from heaven.

Drawn into every storybook of stars— the spark-lit
universes, countlessness of dust— we think along
those phosphorescent ways there must (the brain
lights up a schoolroom rule) live others
like ourselves in worlds
as mirror-mesmerized.

As mine, let’s say, or hers. And so it was
around the fifty-seventh month
of her life’s underlife (a mindless blind
metastasis of cells) we sent each other

messages by email, sudden, simultaneous,
because of dreams. In hers, the ancestors

were waiting, just across a lake, but she
found no equipment in her
circumstances of canoe.
The paddle on the water
drifted far and
farther off.
She saw it

touch my boat, she said.
She saw me shove it back, across the surface,
safely to her hand, so she could get
where she’d be found.
Dear god, give me
a faith like that.

In my dream we both drowned.

 
Heather McHugh received a B.A. (1970) from Harvard University and an M.A. (1972) from the University of Denver. Her additional books of poetry include The Father of Predicaments (2001), Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 (1994), and A World of Difference (1981), among others. From 1999 to 2006 she served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and she is currently Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle, a post she has held since 1984.

 
 
Edwidge Danticat, 2004. Photo by: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images
 
 
Editor’s note: Writer Edwidge Danticat, another of today’s MacArthur winners, talked with Jeffrey Brown in 2004 about her non-fiction book ‘The Dew Breaker’. Click here to watch the video.